Five truths every creative brief writer must face.

I offer these five truths about the creative brief that will help you take a successful first step of the creative process.

1. Collaborate, especially with creatives. Never write this document by yourself.

How many of you remember Steve Jobs’s Parable of Rocks? It bears repeating. This is Jobs speaking: Steve Jobs

“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

“One day he said to me, ‘Come on into my garage I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, ‘Come with me.’ We went out into the back and we got some rocks… some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ This can was making a racket as the stones went around.

“And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (Jobs clapped his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks. river rocks

“That’s always been in my mind, my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about.

 “It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

I know you’re thinking that he’s speaking about creative people: art directors, copywriters, digital folks, graphic artists and others. Maybe.

But think about the principle. Put an account planner, a creative and an account management person in a room together, and have them forge a creative brief as a team. Everyone has a stake. It’s not “You write it, I’ll work from it.” No. It’s a team effort.

Creatives have done this for decades. Creative brief writers should be doing it this way, too.

2. You must make choices. Less is definitely more.

The tendency is to cover your butt. You don’t want to accused of forgetting something. So everything is included. Nothing is excluded. Your brief is not brief.

Not everything matters. You must make decisions. The principle of “Liberating constraint” applies here. Box in your creative team with restrictions, rules, walls, the very things they detest. The result is creative freedom. This is the definition of the creative brief.

The creative brief is not a product encyclopedia. It’s the opening line of a brand poem.

3. Take a stand, and stand by it. You must be courageous.

If the Single-Minded Proposition (or the Core Idea, or the One Thing, or whatever you call it on your brief) does not spark a debate, go back to the drawing board and try again.

When it does spark a debate, relax. You done good. Now defend it.

4. If you’re really a professional, practice.

Gary Player, the South African golf legend, told this story some years ago.

Player was practicing sand shots out of a green-side bunker when a fan stopped by to watch. Player hit shot after shot after shot, each one landing softly on the green and rolling into the cup. After each shot, he heard his fan say the same thing, “That’s just luck!”

Player, clearly annoyed, turned to the man and with a smile on his face, said, “That’s right! The more I practice, the luckier I get!” Gary Player

If the only time you write a creative brief is when you actually have to write a creative brief, you’re doing yourself a disservice. And everyone else on the team.

Imagine if Gary Player hit a sand shot only when his ball actually landed in a bunker. Or if LeBron James shot a free throw only when he was fouled. Imagine if these two sports giants never practiced. You know what would happen. We would never have heard of them. They’d have been failures.

It’s your job to practice writing a brief even when no brief is required. You can do this anytime: On your commute. Waiting in line for coffee. In the dentist’s chair. Think about a product, an everyday item, anything. What is its Single-Minded Proposition? Who would truly use it? What insights can you conjure about this consumer? What are the obstacles to overcome?

These are simple mind exercises you can do at any time. You don’t have to put fingers to a keyboard. But you do have to engage your brain. It’s a muscle like your bicep or hamstring. Use it. Practice.

The point is to develop muscle memory. Do this for 30 days and you have a habit. A professional habit.

5. You have permission to be creative!

The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. I like to quote Sir John Hegarty here: The brief is the first ad. It doesn’t have to be great, but it must be good.

So don’t be shy. You are allowed, encouraged, to offer up creative ideas. I have seen them called “creative starters” on some briefs. They may lead nowhere, but if you leave them out, we’ll never know, will we?

Remember these five truths and you will write better, clearer, more inspiring creative briefs.

To tell an authentic brand story, write an inspired creative brief.

In 1989, I was a copywriter for a small business-to-business advertising agency in Milwaukee.

Two facts stand out about this job. The first is that the shop did not use a creative brief. The document was not part of its day-to-day operations. I fixed that.

The second relates to one of its bigger clients, an American manufacturer of turf equipment, one of whose marketing executives I met on many occasions. This executive used to repeat a phrase I never forgot. He used it every time I, or one of my colleagues, asked this question when we started a new project:

“What’s the one, most important thing we need to say about your product?”

His answer still startles me, almost 30 years later.

“We don’t have just one thing,” he said. “We have a unique package of features.”

Except that no one tells a story about a unique package of features. That’s not how it works.

Storytelling as a tool for advertisers was not on many people’s minds in the late 1980s. A handful of brilliant thinkers, like Steve Jobs, knew better.

The history of storytelling dates to at least cave dwellers who left us drawings on walls that told visual stories. Let’s just say that storytelling is old. lascauxhorsesaurochshd

The creative brief isn’t. But chances are, few people working in advertising today were in the business when the creative brief came into existence. Account planning was born in 1965, and with it the creative brief.

The purpose of the creative brief has remained unchanged since its inception: to give succinct and inspired instructions to an advertiser’s creative partners with the expectation that a sales-driving idea emerges.

In the last 50+ years, the creative brief’s template has changed, but its purpose has not. It remains debatable whether the brief’s credibility and respect match its designed purpose, but that’s another story.

At least three questions that should be on every creative brief provide the impetus for a memorable brand story.

But first, a word of advice:

No brand story can unfold without internal buy-in. An authentic brand story is not manufactured. It does not arise from external (meaning outside the company) sources. It does not answer the questions What? or How? about a brand. It answers Why? Why does the brand exist?

Think about the best brand storytellers and you’ll see why this advice is true. And why it matters.

Here’s my short list:

Greats.

I’ll let the founders speak. (By the way, I own two pairs. I LOVE ’em!!)

Blue Apron.

I’ve used this product, too, but not currently. This isn’t an endorsement. It’s high praise for the story they tell. Here’s a highlight from their website:

“Our mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone.”

mobile-hero-1-variant-859ca07b851fe88cf29e48c37ac4b40aa37f18ef4f9e3d66241fadae10b86014

Every piece of communication from the company reflects this singularly focused message.

Harry’s.

I use an electric shaver, but if I didn’t, I’d probably buy Harry’s razors. Why? I’ll let their website speak:

The shaving company that’s fixing shaving
We created Harry’s to be different from the other shaving brands. Unlike the big brands that overdesign and overcharge, we make a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys.

Harrys-Hero

Each brand’s core message answers the question: Why does this product exist? That’s what the story is built around.

So which questions on the creative brief help creatives arrive at a brand story?

1. What is the Single-Minded Proposition? No matter what you might call it, and it has many names (Unique Selling Proposition, The One Thing, Key Message), this is the heart of any great story.

You’ll know your story is right when you can end it with this line: “And that’s the reason why (single-minded proposition here)…”

Try it with the three brands on my list of brilliant storytellers above. It works.

2. What is an authentic customer insight? If you’re focused on meeting company goals, you can’t successfully address what your customer needs. They come first. Always. A believable story begins and ends with your customer. Your insight should reflect this essential truth.

Arriving at an authentic customer insight does not require gobs of research money. If you know what the Socratic Method is, you have the tools to dive deep into your customers’ thinking to discover and address your their emotional wants and needs.

3. What is the company/product/service background? If you don’t ask this question, you will never understand why the company or product or service came into being. You need to be the equivalent of a brand archeologist. Move beyond features and benefits.

We advertising folk are storytellers. It’s in our DNA to fashion a story on behalf of the brands we are tasked to sell.

The details—the essential elements of your story—are embedded in the creative brief.

Storytelling is about basics. So is the creative brief. It’s the first step in developing your authentic brand story.

Would you like students to quote you in classroom discussions?

I need your help.

My new book is tentatively titled How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition. It’s a companion to my critically acclaimed text, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief 2nd edition. OOS Icon

Like my current book, this new graphic text will be a nuts and bolts examination of the single-minded proposition (SMP). It will include step-by-step instructions on how to arrive at this sentence or phrase, practical exercises, examples of well-written SMPs, and advice on how to fix weak SMPs. I’ll also look back at the history of the creative brief.

An important feature will be comments and insights from professionals in advertising and marketing on this most important part of the creative brief.

Will you help me? Do you have an opinion on what makes a good SMP?

This is your chance to weigh in.

If I use your comments, I’ll send you a signed copy of the new book absolutely free

First, please complete a short, four-question survey. If you wish, you can cut-and-paste this URL into your browser: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/FZF7WMN.

Also, share this link with friends, colleagues and people whose opinions readers would value.

My current textbook is now required reading at a growing number of undergraduate and graduate programs around the country, including the University of Minnesota School of Mass Communications and Journalism and New York University’s graduate program in Integrated Marketing.

Students could soon be quoting you in classrooms far and wide. quotes

Thanks in advance for your enthusiasm and willingness to share your wisdom.

 

When your creative brief process is broken and how to fix it.

broken-007

Beginning writers tend to learn a lesson about plagiarism the hard way. They commit it unintentionally. They didn’t mean to quote an author without giving him or her due credit, but…

Unintentional plagiarism, I can attest from years of classroom experience, is the most likely kind of plagiarism a college freshman blunders into. The problem is, it’s still plagiarism and they still fail the paper.

The analogy works for a broken creative brief process. The participants, whether they’re in an ad agency or the marketing department of an advertiser, often have no idea their briefing process is broken. They didn’t mean to mess it up, but they did. Something isn’t right, and they keep chugging along hoping to muddle through.

It’s not unlike the definition of insanity: You keep doing the same thing over and over and hoping for, well, you know the rest.

So how can you tell when your briefing process is broken? What are the red flags?

Look for these four warning signs. In fact, if you recognize even only one of them, it’s time to address your creative briefing process before it does, in fact, break.

You Know It’s Broke When:

1: The people who work from the brief roll their eyes after it’s presented.

That’s an exaggeration. The people who work from the brief, and this is the creative people, are a difficult lot to begin with. They love to complain: about bad briefs, bad coffee, bad shoes. They complain because it’s in their nature. They tend to be jaded and borderline cynical. Okay, forget borderline.

They complain about bad briefs, especially, because they read them so often. They may in fact respond to any brief with an exasperated sigh. It’s reflexive. They can’t help it.

But if this happens frequently and is followed by a rush of questions of a certain nature, you’re in trouble.

These questions tend to look like this:

“I thought you said we couldn’t…”

“Are you sure you mean it this way? Last time you said…”

“Why is this okay now? Last month…”

“But I thought they hated (insert color/celebrity/location/idea)…”

“Wait a minute. That single-minded proposition has two/three/four ideas. Which one do they really mean?”

2: The parties do not agree on content.

You Know It’s Broke #2 is a subset of #1. Even if you can satisfactorily answer all the questions posed by your creatives after the briefing, you may not have a salvageable brief.

Those questions—and the underlying attitude of skepticism—tend not to be addressed to anyone’s satisfaction, and are a symptom of the broken process.

The fundamental premise of the brief comes into question. One of two things can happen.

First, the briefing ends in disagreement and creative go off and write their own brief, even if it’s not a formal document. They devise their own Single-Minded Proposition and that becomes the brief.

Sometimes this actually works. But you won’t know it even happened until the day the work is presented. If the work does not meet expectations, the Creative’s Creative Brief Syndrome is typically to blame (that’s my fancy term for the creative department’s DIY brief. Which you don’t want).

I know. I’ve committed this heresy myself, although only a handful of times. I’d say my batting average was above .500. That’s exemplary if you’re in the Majors. It’s horrible when you bomb in a creative presentation.

The second scenario, and the more likely outcome, is that the creative team leaves the briefing confused, and that’s what the work looks like when it’s presented. It’s a perfect illustration of “garbage in, garbage out.”garbage-in-garbage-out

These situations are why I wrote my book on the creative brief. It was the result of feeling utterly frustrated because my creative department operated either without a formal brief altogether, or we functioned with a brief that one or more players did not fully embrace. Any process is only as strong as its weakest link.

3: Only one player in the process writes the creative brief. This situation will almost always guarantee Reasons 1 and 2 above.

You Know It’s Broke #3 stands independent of the first two. It’s a symptom of old-school silo-ing, a tradition that dates back decades.

The creative departments of major ad agencies know first hand about the silo effect. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, most creative departments did not have “teams” of art directors and copywriters. They were separate departments. The did not talk to each other.

Geniuses like Bill Bernbach changed that. Copywriters and art directors were teamed up and expected to work together. The results played a seminal role in producing the Golden Era of advertising in the 1960s.

silosAccount and brand planners have wised up in recent years. They have been moving away from working independently as the owners of the creative brief and have advocated for cross-department collaboration. The principle that works so well in creative departments applies here.

If the author of the creative brief in your place of business works alone, even if she works with a partner in the same department, chances are you have a broken creative briefing system, or one that is sick and needs 911.

If creatives have no role in the process, they have little at stake. If they collaborate on not just writing the brief, but then also play a role in briefing on the brief they helped author, things change. Drastically and dramatically.

4. The reviewers of the creative work don’t know how to review the creative work.

The ability to offer clear feedback on the creative work is an absolute job requirement. There is no excuse for being inarticulate or afraid to hurt someone’s feelings.

Rest assured, advertising creatives are professionals. They have thick skin and can take criticism.

Still, being a critic is not easy. It takes finesse, patience and practice. Especially practice.

So I recommend that you practice. A lot. You don’t become adept at writing a creative brief by doing it once. Or even 10 times. You must write them dozens of times and even then you’ll learn something new with each attempt.

Find a piece of creative work not connected to your job or your brand. It could be a TV spot or an email.

Critique it. What do you like? What doesn’t work? Make a list. Write down your thoughts. You don’t have the creative brief against which to judge it, so use your savvy as a consumer.  You are, after all, a consumer.

Team up with a creative in your department or at your agency. Work one-on-one with a piece of neutral creative (meaning something neither you nor the creative is connected to) and ask questions about how to review it. Believe me, your creative partner will have some thoughts and won’t be afraid to speak them out loud. This is a learning opportunity for you.

The point is, the only way to become proficient at reviewing creative is to review it.

Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Step back and ask yourself some tough questions about your creative brief and the process of briefing. If you suspect any one of the symptoms I’ve discussed above, it’s time to reexamine your process.

How many “practice” creative briefs have you written?

kobe-bryant-practices-in-nike-kobe-9-elite-02-570x570Basketball legend Kobe Bryant has made countless jump shots and layups in his practice sessions.

“As a kid growing up, I never skipped steps. I always worked on fundamentals because I know athleticism is fleeting.”  Kobe Bryant

Tennis star Serena Williams has likely hit uncountable numbers of volleys in practice since she was a young girl. Someone asked if her success were due to luck.

“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”14SERENA1-master768

The legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus has said that he played fewer tournaments than his fellow competitors because he chose to spend that time practicing his game at home.

“Nobody—but nobody—has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots.” Jack Nicklaus

Seinfeld has told tens of thousands of jokes on stages across the country. Ballet star Misty Copeland has spent thousands of hours in the classroom, working at the ballet barre, all in preparation for her performances. Speaking legend Tony Robbins has rehearsed hours and hours for his presentations.

The same is true for ministers, gymnasts, coaches, courtroom lawyers…you name the profession, and you can imagine the almost unimaginable hours of preparation these dedicated individuals have devoted to their craft, all to be ready to display their skills when they matter most: on the job.

So I ask you: How much preparation have you put in to write a creative brief?

Here’s my guess: Exactly none.

There is no preparation. You just write one when you have to write one.

And therein lies a major missed opportunity. No one practices the skills required to write a creative brief well. There is no “creative brief boot camp” to make you sweat your tail off learning the fundamentals of writing this document. There should be.

Sounds absurd, right? Not from where I sat, which was on the receiving end of one of those too often poorly written documents that landed on my desk.

As a point of comparison, creatives constantly practice their concepting skills. Young creatives especially. Sometimes they don’t know when to stop practicing. They do “spec” work, whether it’s for their own professional portfolio or some pro-bono client or even a friend’s dog-sitting service. They’re like little “Energizer bunnies”: they keep concepting and concepting until their brains cramp. This is how they get really good.

When I was younger, I used to flip through the Yellow Pages (remember that?) until I’d find an interesting business, the more obscure the better. Then I’d create a spec ad for that business. Back in the 1980s, when I was just getting started, I wrote a spec-ad for a music teacher who taught the accordion: “I can teach anyone to carry a tune.” Groaner, yes, but the fact is, I practiced my craft even when no one was looking.

If you write creative briefs for a living, can you say the same? If the answer is no, my next question is: Why not?

I’ve said it over and over: the creative brief is the first step in the creative process. Get it wrong here and everything that follows suffers proportionately. It’s the principle of “garbage in, garbage out” at work.garbage-in-garbage-out

Practice is vital.

But who has time to practice?

Professionals do. If you’re a professional, you must practice.

Here are three techniques you can adopt right away.

1. Practice in your head.

One of the more important questions on a creative brief is, “What is the Single-Minded Proposition?” This is something you can practice formulating as you commute to and from work. You don’t even need pen and paper.

Imagine the product or service, conjure its key benefit and translate that benefit into a “What’s in it for me?” proposition that directly addresses the product’s best customer. Think of that short phrase or sentence. Don’t stop there. Think of alternatives. Come up with many SMPs. Which one is the best? Why?

Turn this into a brain-game and repeat it often. It’s called practice. It’s what professionals do.

2. Follow your creatives’ lead: Do spec work for a favorite cause or a pro-bono client. Now you have a reason to practice.

If you don’t do this already, it’s time to start. Most agencies and brands dedicate time and resources to charitable causes. Volunteer. Even pro-bono projects need creative briefs.

3. Start an in-house creative-brief writing workshop whose purpose is honing brief-writing skills. Volunteer to lead it.

The first time I was asked by a dean of student affairs at one of the community colleges where I now teach whether I’d ever taught grammar, I hesitated for just a second before saying yes and accepting the assignment.

In truth, I’d never taught grammar before. But it turned out to be the best and most fun experience I’ve had in the classroom. And I mastered the fundamentals of grammar because…

…I had to teach them!

Whether you’re a 20-year veteran or a newbie, you, too, can teach someone how to write a better brief. When you teach, you become a better practitioner. If you do even rudimentary research online, you’ll find source material that will help you teach brief writing, and my book is only one of them (although I happen to think it’s the best source).

The point is, every brief writer needs practice. No professional doesn’t need practice.

Take the initiative. Start now. Because you’re a professional.

What all good single-minded propositions have in common.

Many years ago, about a week into a new job I’d taken as creative director on a major international brand, I was reviewing a creative brief that had been approved by the client and was the inspiration for a batch of new creative work that would be presented a week hence.

The brief was a disappointment. The single-minded proposition was a disaster. It was, rather than singularly focused, a triple-minded Frankenstein’s monster. I remember sighing audibly, then asking if it were too late to re-visit the SMP. 04

“The client really likes this one,” I was told. “But if you insist, we can set up a conference call.”

It was a battle worth fighting, but the timing was definitely wrong. I acquiesced instead.

It was not the first time I had read such a beast on a creative brief, nor the last. It’s no accident that when I started teaching college freshman English, I encountered the same apprehension and confusion around writing the dreaded “thesis statement” in a college essay.

The “thesis” and the “SMP” are two sides of the same coin: They are the hardest sentence/phrase to write and the most important statements in their respective vehicles. When done well, they are a thing of beauty and the inspiration for the rest of the document. When done poorly, everything else suffers.

Two thoughts can guide you here, with some inspired clarity from writer, philosopher, and painter, Walter Russell:

Mediocrity is self-inflicted. Genius is self-bestowed.

There is no reason for the SMP to be such an intimidating exercise. Like everything else we do as communication professionals, the more we practice a thing, the better we become at it. A few minutes examining what the really good single-minded propositions have in common reveals much for us to absorb and from which we can benefit.

First, let’s set the stage with a solid definition of the single-minded proposition.

My favorite comes from Jon Steel’s book, “Truth, Lies and Advertising,” when he quotes John Hegarty, the legendary creative leader at BBH in London.

Hegarty suggests that you write the single-minded proposition on a piece of paper, above or below an image of the product. The result becomes, in his words, a “good” ad, but not necessarily a great ad. The SMP, says Hegarty, is the “first ad.” I would amplify that definition by saying it’s the first draft of the first ad. The creatives use it as inspiration for what, everyone hopes, becomes the polished, final draft ad.

In other words, the SMP is the Big Idea. The creatives unearth Big Executions of the Big Idea, what we call creative solutions.

Here is some thinking from other advertising practitioners:

A proposition is the one-liner – usually rounding off the brief – that encapsulates the strategic thought that we’re asking our creatives to dramatise and bring to life as ads. Indeed, it is usually this one-liner that creates the most debate from all parties involved, as reductive thinking is inherently controversial.

Matt Hunt, European Head of Planning, Grey Healthcare Group

I had to think for a while to remember the last time I saw a pure proposition; one free from bullshit and extras, that simply tells you where to start digging…too many account teams and clients no longer understand what a single-minded thought actually is.

The Denver Egoist

Now, let’s examine a few examples of single-minded propositions for real products from real creative briefs. (Notice that all of these SMPs come from dated briefs, some more than 20 years old. It is notoriously difficult to pry a brief from the proprietarily paranoid…er…protective ad agency.) single_minded_1337085

Toro (circa 2010):

Toro makes the tools. You make the yard.

H&R Block (circa 2008):

Now you can have an expert on your side.

Izuzu Rodeo SUV (circa 1994):

The normal rules don’t apply.

AARP (circa unknown):

AARP gives you the power to make up your own rules.

Lexus GS300 relaunch (circa 1998):

The GS300 is the kick-ass Lexus.

These single-minded propositions have much in common, and much from which we can learn. I’m sure you’ve drawn your own conclusions after having glanced at the list above, so compare your list with mine. I have deliberately not presented the creative because I want your focus on the SMP, not the resulting creative.

The point is, unless and until you take the time to really examine these sentences and understand why they work, the SMP will remain an intimidating mystery for the person who has to write it, and an eternal source of ire for the creatives who must work from it.

1. It is often just a phrase, but never longer than a sentence.

Obvious, yes. But when you’ve suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous paragraph long, throw-in-the-kitchen sink SMPs, I hope you’ll see that the good SMP is concise. Obvious, yes, but not so obvious when you have to face your client. gleamingkitchensink

2. Its focus is always singular; it’s about one thing only.

Obvious, yes…again. Its called “single-minded” for a reason. Research repeatedly shows that consumers respond more readily to one, neat idea.

3. The best SMP is modest because it doesn’t need to be any more.

You’re not competing with the creative department. You’re showing them a starting point. Think about Hegarty’s definition: The SMP doesn’t have to be great, just good. The SMPs I’ve shared with you here fit that definition.

4. The best ones are fearless.

Like a college essay’s thesis, the SMP must take a stand. Once you realize that an SMP is not for public consumption, you operate from a place of freedom. Remember your audience: The creative department. They depend on you, the writer, to kick-start their thinking. If you’re not brave, you make it harder for them to be.

The SMP is the first thing creatives look for on a brief. Their body language is impossible to miss after they’ve read one. Obvious…yes?

Don’t settle for the mediocre. Practice combined with confidence creates genius.

 

A Creative Brief Manifesto

manifesto11For almost seven years, I have toiled as the “one lone voice speaking out” on behalf of the Creative Brief, in the opinion of my esteemed colleague Sean Duffy, a man of wisdom and impeccable taste.

It has been a labor of love. The Creative Brief represents the best of the analytical side and the imaginative side of the advertising business, a combination that I revel in as a former direct-response creative.

I cherish any opportunity to dissect, explain, advocate for, instruct on, and simply talk about this under-appreciated, abused and too often poorly written document.

But it is more than a document. It is the best-kept secret for any one or any organization in search of a simple, direct method for establishing a value proposition.

I suggest that the Creative Brief escape its advertising-industry handcuffs and fulfill its promise as a purposeful roadmap for any business, any entrepreneur, anyone with a vision to market a product or service and who also struggles with arriving at the unique selling proposition. The one thing.

This struggle is common. It is universal: Everyone experiences it. There is a solution.

In trained hands the Creative Brief has the power to exquisitely distill anything—an ad campaign, a brand, a philanthropic foundation, your life’s ambition.

At its best, the Creative Brief promises gravitas by means of the Socratic Method. It is not, and should not be, limited to the advertising and creative businesses, where, quite frankly, it has languished as the poor step-child of the creative process in spite of its role as the creative kick-starter. Socrates_Louvre

So allow me to present a treatise on behalf of everyone who believes the best is possible even when the best is too often a mere hope.

This Creative Brief Manifesto is a set of prescriptions for businesses to adopt to clarify their message, to hone their value proposition. Critically, the brief is about content, not format. Adapt the five points below into provocative questions. The answers provide the imaginative shove that gets you—or your designated team—to your objective.

Remember, this is the starting point, not the ending. All great endings require an inspired beginning. Otherwise, as Euripides said, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending.” Which is a fancy way of saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

1. Start with feelings, not facts.

Social scientists, marketing researchers, creatives and many others all have ample evidence to demonstrate that you and I may rely on facts to help us make decisions, but if our hearts are not moved, if we do not have a strong feeling, we are not truly committed to the thing, whatever it might be.

This truth has nothing to do with what the client or the business owner wants the feeling to be. It’s all about discovering what the customer feels…and why. emotion

2. You’ll never grasp the emotion without first discovering an insight.

If you don’t know Socrates, you don’t know Jack. Think you need a ginormous research budget to unearth this so-called “insight”? You don’t. If you know how the Socratic Method works, you have the basic tools you need to discover an insight.

3. What’s in it for me?

The single-minded proposition (SMP) has fans and detractors, but one fact remains unchallenged: Customers remember what resonates with them. Keep it simple. Make it  memorable.

The point is no longer to merely intrude and be pervasive. You must engage. It’s not about one-way communication in the age of social media. It’s about a conversation.

But whether you support or abhor the SMP, clarity (i.e. distillation, conciseness, laser focus) is the mandatory exercise.

4. Prove it!

You will never fall in love if there is no trust.

There is always a role for facts, and to seal the deal for the love affair, offer evidence that the emotional claim is believable. The best evidence has not changed: Testimonials, awards for reliability and quality, #1 best-seller.

Or, as Rod Tidwell says to Jerry McGuire, “Show me the money!”

5. Begin the story here.

Remember the Native American proverb: “Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me a truth and I will believe. Tell me a story and it will live forever in my heart.” The Creative Brief is the moral to the as-yet untold brand story.

It is a kind of “here’s where we want to end up” without knowing the path to that ending. The brief suggests a path, it points in the right direction, and trusts that those who execute from the brief will get there. Who knows how many left or right turns might be necessary, many or all of which appear to be leading you astray.

This is the great unknown, the mystery that arises from every brief: The writers put their trust in those who execute from the brief, and those team members trust the writers to have done their jobs in refining—distilling—the brief to its clarifying finest. Here is what you need to know, the brief tells them, and what is here will inspire you. Go, now, and perform alchemy.

How many practitioners believe it is possible? It’s just a piece of paper, they say. Don’t expect too much.

It’s time to stop thinking that way. What’s on that piece of paper is a product of human inspiration.

Invest in the outcome. Trustworthiness

Make sure you have skin in the game.

The Creative Brief is the best-kept secret for anyone or any business that wants a clearly marked path to an effective and believable value proposition.

 

 

 

50 years after its invention, the creative brief needs some fixes.

The creative brief dates to the early 1960s when account planning was introduced to the advertising world by a Brit named Stanley Pollitt. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creative brief. Its role in developing great advertising deserves recognition and, no disrespect intended, a review. All good things can be improved.

As both an admirer and advocate of the creative brief, I offer a small gift to this document’s long history: Some ideas to make the creative brief better.

1. Consumers make decisions about brands based on their feelings, not their brains. The Single-Minded Proposition must reflect this truth.

This is an insight that is not new, but is slow to be embraced. Some account planners and academics have been writing about this topic, and I have written about it without being fully aware of the research. Professional experience, however, is hard to ignore.

Too often, we accept single-minded propositions that focus on rationality, on a mistaken belief that people make decisions based on facts and evidence, that we act reasonably. The process humans follow to arrive at a buying decision is sloppy, filled with irrational thinking, often contrary to our own best interests. Branding would not exist as we recognize it today if it were not because of this odd path we take before we open our wallets.

We must, therefore, change the way we view the core of the creative brief—the single-minded proposition. Some argue that the “single” nature of this idea is a relic, and there may be some truth in that, but I believe the most important argument here is the missing, or under-representation of, emotion. faces-small

It’s a scary thing to place so much weight on a hard-to-measure part of human psychology. The good news is, measuring emotional responses is actually getting easier, and more social scientists are exploring it, with fascinating results.

Advertising driven by direct appeals to emotion also works better. It is often more engaging, more humorous and more memorable. Refer to the link above for evidence and its nearly five pages of references.

The single-minded proposition is dead, as I suggested in a recent post. It must be replaced by an updated single-minded proposition that embraces the human nature of decision making: The messy, dynamic, more trustworthy emotions that make us who we are.

Just ask any creative. She knows from experience.

2. Creative brief writers must become better writers.

We must all become better writers, but this is especially true for communications professionals.

Please don’t mistake this as a plea for better headline writers. Anyone can write a headline. For proof, visit a parking lot and see how many clever personal license tags you can find. writer-1-300x300

Good, clear writing is a direct result of good, clear thinking. The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. It is the first ad written for any new communications project. It is the inspiration for the creative team. It must carry this weight with grace.

A poorly written creative brief is uninspiring for one reason and one reason only: Lack of clarity.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, lack of clarity is not, repeat not, because the brief fails to offer “outside the box” thinking, a term that has become meaningless; worse, it is simply dumb and wrong.

Lack of clarity means incoherent, unintelligible, not particular. It means fuzzy, blurred, unsharp. Good writing makes ideas coherent, intelligible, particular. Good brief writing makes coherent ideas sizzle.

Creative brief writers must be dedicated practitioners of the art of clear writing, first and foremost.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Less is more does not work in this space. Creative teams are called teams for a reason. Isn’t it about time we initiate creative brief teams?

If you have a stake in the outcome, you vest yourself. It’s time for creatives to take an equity stake in the document they love to loathe.

4. Re-new your vows to the creative brief.

I came across a blog post from a thoughtful account planner who suggested that the creative brief had outlived its usefulness and that in its place, clients, agencies and creatives should substitute a freer, uninhibited approach to producing creative solutions: A kind of “divergent thinking meets convergent thinking” informal brainstorming session.

I found myself shaking my head for the nth time. Someone is always trashing the document when the problem, in fact, is the content and the content’s originators.

No matter who complains about the creative brief, the complaint is rarely different: It doesn’t inspire enough. It doesn’t propel good thinking enough. It doesn’t work hard enough. It doesn’t do something quite enough.

To my thinking, this misses the point. The document is simply a place holder. It is ultimately only as good as the answers its questions provoke. Asking better questions might help, but that is the easy part. Producing better answers is my response, and it is definitely the hardest part.

Don’t blame a poorly imagined story on the document in which it resides. Look at yourself, the story teller.

transmutation_circle_part_1_by_orbita2k2-d5mkp26Renew your vows to this instrument of inspiration. Believe it can perform alchemy and it will. It is a blank space awaiting…

 

Book Excerpt: Where does the Single-Minded Proposition spring from?

I’ve been writing about the Single-Minded Proposition in recent posts, so I thought I’d continue with an excerpt from the second edition of my book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief2nd edition art. The following is from Chapter 12:

No two creative briefs are exactly alike, but most contain a box that asks for “communication objectives” or “reasons why we’re creating this advertisement.” These two mean the same thing.

A brief also asks for the Single-Minded Proposition (SMP). Sometimes it’s called the key proposition or the One Unique Thing. Whatever you call it in your brief, it must list the one overriding reason why people will or should want to buy your product or service.

So where do you find the SMP? In the short list in Communication Objectives. It starts as a product feature for which you, the brief writer, must assign a product benefit (assuming your client hasn’t done that already).

From there, the Single-Minded Proposition emerges from the product benefits. A product can have hundreds of benefits, ranging from the core benefit that gives the product its singular appeal, all the way to very tenuous benefits that may in fact be valuable but aren’t going to have a significant impact on sales.

For example, it’s hard to argue with the unique design appeal of an Apple iPad. That’s central to its huge popularity. You just want to reach out and hold one. And play with it.

That could be the benefit that turns into the SMP.

On the other hand, my favorite chewing gum comes in a sleeve of 12 pieces. Why not 15? Or 9? Is this particular sleeve size a benefit? Well, yeah, but it’s not terribly significant. And it won’t necessarily effect my purchase decision.

So all product features translate into some kind of product benefit.

They also have the potential to translate into communication objectives, or reasons why we are asked, as creatives, to come up with an ad. However, we’re not given a list of eight or nine or 15 communication objectives.

It should be only three, four tops.

But…

The path from product feature to product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition isn’t direct. It’s not literal.

This spot on the brief is exactly where I think brief writers stumble and over-think things. That’s why I’m a big advocate of using a common vocabulary when you write a brief. It’s a matter of eliminating confusion and inexactness, and finding the right words to describe what you really mean.

I suggest that you use verbs to write communication objectives. (Review Chapter 12 on page 74)

Why verbs? They’re the John Wayne of words. They’re about action. About doing something. And we want our targets to do something: Buy the product we’re selling. John-Wayne-p15

Let’s use Apple again. We know that Apple stands apart in the tablet business because of its clean, intuitive design. I’d argue it’s at or near the top of the list of product benefits.

But I wouldn’t list “cool design” as a communication objective. It’s too vague. It doesn’t tell the creative team what to do about this…coolness.

Instead, I’d rather use a verb to guide the creatives in their thinking. I say “guide” rather than “instruct” or “direct” because as a brief writer it’s not my job to write the ad. I’m the first step in the creative process.

So, what might I say? Romance…excite…thrill (the verb, not the noun)…energize…

You get the idea, right? Keep it simple. Use direct verbs to describe the reasons why the creative team has been asked to write the ad.

The progression looks like this if we’re using the Apple iPad as our example:

Product feature: Uncomplicated, simple design (what the product is)

Product benefit: iPad’s cool makes you cool too (what the product gives you)

Remember: The feature talks to your head. The benefit talks to your heart.

Communication objective: Jolt the target into falling in love (again) with the latest Apple device (what we want the creative team to do)

Single-Minded Proposition: “________________________________” (how to communicate the product benefit that achieves the communication objectives)

(Hey, I know how to do this. You’re the one who needs practice. So practice!)

One tip: the SMP can be off the wall and outrageously over the top. How so? It’s not meant for public consumption. Its purpose is to inspire the creative team. Get their juices flowing. As the brief writer, you get to take the first crack at writing a headline.

So brief writers, arise and be daring. But don’t confuse the product benefit with the SMP itself!

 Do them in your head.

You can write a brief in three simple steps. It’ll take you less then five minutes. Do this once a day, say during your commute to or from work, and you’ll discover your brain will add creative-brief-writing muscle before you know it.

Now let’s try something harder: the object on which you’re sitting right now. A chair.

Step one: identify the features of your chair. As I type this, I’m sitting on a counter stool in my kitchen. My stainless steel and leather stool is comfortable. It’s attractive. It was inexpensive. That’s three features. stool

Next, identify what the benefit is for each feature.

Comfort: I gravitate toward this chair because it’s comfortable, so I like it. A lot.

Attractive: I feel proud of my excellent taste in design.

Inexpensive: My, aren’t I the clever chap for finding something so wonderful and at such a bargain.

Three features, three benefits.

Oh, and guess what. We’ve already found the hardest thing to write on a creative brief: the Single-Minded Proposition. It’s always one of the benefits. Always. The question is, which one?

For your practice exercise, it doesn’t matter. Write (in your head) an SMP for each benefit. I sometimes provide my creative teams with multiple SMPs. When you did as much creative testing as I did, you often need different creative approaches.

For comfort, try this:

 You’d give this chair a standing ovation except you’re too comfortable to get up.

For design, try this:

 You keep a photograph of this chair in your wallet and show it off any chance you get.

For inexpensive, try this:

 If they gave out Nobel Prizes bargain hunters, you’d get one.

Notice that each SMP could be a headline. They don’t have to be good headlines, however. You’re the pioneer headline writer on the assignment. Your job is to write the first one to inspire something better from your creative team.

Now, you try it. Pick everyday objects—a pencil, your bedroom slippers,  your cereal bowl, a coffee mug, your reading lamp. Keep them simple and unremarkable. It takes the pressure off.

Remember: three features, three benefits, three SMPs.

Also remember John Hegarty’s rule that the proposition is the first ad for the creative team. So don’t be lazy. This is a test.

Be pithy. Be clever. Be succinct.

Before you know it, SMPs will become second nature to you.

Write a killer single-minded proposition in 4 steps.

(Re-posted from April 6, 2015: This essay is by far my most popular, most read, most Googled blog post to date. I bring it back to give you another opportunity to read it. I’ve made some minor updates, but it is otherwise the same content as the original four months ago.)

When I was a kid back in my hometown of Milwaukee, I loved basketball. Around the age of 13 I attended a week-long basketball camp hosted by the legendary coach of the 4641939331_0fee32dc15Marquette Warriors, Al McGuire. Coach McGuire put us through drills morning and afternoon before we had scrimmages after dinner.

It was grueling work, but when you’re a kid, it was just plain fun. Non-stop basketball. I loved it.

Looking back on that experience, I understand why we spent so much time practicing fundamentals: dribbling, layups, free-throws, jump shots. And running. Back and forth. Back and forth. I can still hear the sounds of pounding feet and squeaky sneakers on the polished hardwood courts.

These days, I teach Freshman English at community college in Los Angeles, which means I teach students about how to write an essay. If you think back to your days as a student, you might recall that the hardest part of an essay was the thesis statement. After more than 25 years as an ad copywriter and creative director, reading and working from creative briefs, the first thing I discovered about teaching students how to write a thesis statement was the remarkable similarity between it and the creative brief’s most challenging box:

The Single-Minded Proposition (SMP).

The essay’s thesis statement and the creative brief’s Single-Minded Proposition (or One Important Thing or Key Message or whatever you call it on your brief template) essentially work the same kind of magic: They tell the reader the point.

In an essay, the point is, What is your argument?

In a creative brief, the point is, What is the compelling reason why anyone wants this thing we’re selling?

It’s the hardest part of the creative brief to write because it carries so much weight. It’s typically the first thing a creative looks at when the briefing process begins. It is, as John Hegarty says, the first ad.

So what can be done to make this impossibly vital and important little sentence just a bit easier to write?

Go back to fundamentals.

Always, always, always: Go back to fundamentals. Whether it’s in sports or college writing, when you return to basics, you return to the things that help you develop mastery. layup-00

The reason why the Single-Minded Proposition is so difficult to write is that, like a thesis statement, it is entirely subjective.

It is an opinion.

Which means it has to express some point of view. And someone may disagree with it.

Don’t be intimidated. The Single-Minded Proposition springs from the product itself, so your opinion will be based on fact.

Here, then, are four basic steps on how to arrive at a good Single-Minded Proposition. Remember, as the first ad, in Hegarty’s words, the Single-Minded Proposition does not have to be great.

1. Identify the product’s most important features.

Every product (or service) has a feature. It is one of the aspects of the product that makes the product what it is. One feature of any Apple product, for example, is the intuitive nature of the software. It is easy to use. It’s why a toddler can pick up an iPhone or iPad and start using it without a manual.

2. When you identify the important features, figure out each feature’s benefits.

In other words, why does anyone care about this particular aspect of the product? Why, for example, does Apple’s intuitive software matter? Who cares? What’s in it for me, the user?

Yes, this is very basic stuff. When you figure out the product benefit, you’re halfway to figuring out a Single-Minded Proposition.

I say halfway because the leap from product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition is not direct. It is not literal.

The product feature talks to your head. The product benefit talks to your heart.

3. One of those feature/benefits will be the compelling reason to make a purchase.

Focus on the word “Single” in the Single-Minded Proposition. No matter what the product manager or senior marketing executive at your client says, the product you’re selling is not a “unique package of features,” a term I have heard repeatedly. The best communications are focused messages telling a story about one thing.

This may require some discussion, but you must agree on only one of the items on the short list of feature/benefits. This one will be your candidate for Single-Minded Proposition.

Like all good writing, a Single-Minded Proposition will probably not appear on your first try. Write many drafts. Be more daring with each try. Which leads to the final step:

4. Try the Times Square Test

When you have a draft of a Single-Minded Proposition, give it this test: Imagine you’re standing in the middle of Times Square at 11 PM on a Saturday night. If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s a sea of people, mostly tourists. timessquare

Now imagine you are standing on one side of Broadway and the person you think is the ideal purchaser of your client’s product is standing on the other side of Broadway. If you yelled your Single-Minded Proposition at the top of your lungs and your ideal purchaser heard you, would she get it? Would she understand the reason to buy this product?

You get only one shot at this test. And you have to be honest—with yourself. If you think the line communicates the compelling reason to make the purchase, you probably have a good Single-Minded Proposition.

A word of caution: The stronger the “emotion” that your SMP provokes, the more compelling the idea, and your creative team will have more substance to work with. People respond to brands with their hearts, not their brains.

There’s one caveat: The Single-Minded Proposition can be off-the-wall and outrageously over the top. It’s not meant for public consumption, but rather to inspire your creative team.

As the creative brief writer, your task is to deliver the most inspired and inspiring document you can to your creative team or teams.

That job is hard. Stick with fundamentals. This is how you develop mastery.